WASHINGTON – The Feb. 3 deadline to renew the Patriot Act is looming, and with congressional members pre-occupied by other issues, some say not enough time is left to hammer out differences in the federal anti-terror bill before it expires.
"I would not be at all surprised if we end up with another extension," said former Georgia Republican Rep. Bob Barr, who has been actively petitioning for changes in the Patriot Act, particularly tighter rules on allowing so-called "sneak-and-peek" property searches and digging into individuals' personal records without warrants.
"We would like to see the conference report agreed to, but we understand there are certain concerns and changes that might be added, and we're still looking for an agreement on that," said one Senate Republican aide who did not want to be named, but acknowledged that time was short and another extension may be the only option if negotiators can't get it together.
Senate Democrats and four Republicans united in late December to defeat a vote that would have ended debate on the House-Senate conference bill renewing the Patriot Act and permitted a final vote before the law expired on Dec. 31. With just days left before the expiration, Congress and the White House agreed to extend the life of the act for five more weeks while disputes were sorted out.
But when the Senate convenes this week, its top concern will be the confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. The House is expected to come back into session on Jan. 31, but it has been wrapped up in promoting lobbying reform in the wake of the Jack Abramoff political scandal. House Republicans are also in the midst of electing a new majority leader.
President Bush, who has been pushing for a swift renewal of the anti-terror legislation passed just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, expressed his disappointment with the Senate filibuster that prevented the vote and forced extension of the current Patriot Act provisions into the new year.
The Patriot Act protects the American people "from a terrorist enemy that wants to hit us again," Bush said from the White House on Jan. 3.
"And now, when it came time to renew the act, for partisan reasons, in my mind, people have not stepped up and have agreed that it's still necessary to protect the country," he said. "I expect Congress to understand that we're still at war, and they've got to give us the tools necessary to win this war."
Bush will give his State of the Union address on Jan. 31 and may use the spotlight to try and embarrass opponents of the act if a compromise isn't made by then, say some on Capitol Hill.
"It's really up to the Democrats to cooperate, to play ball here," said another Senate GOP staffer who did not want to be identified. However, "if there isn't a vote, the president is going to beat the hell out of the Democrats in the State of the Union."
But Senate Democrats, joined by their four Republican colleagues, say a number of issues pertaining to individual privacy concerns need to be addressed. They are hoping they can be worked out without having to extend the deadline again.
"We overwhelmingly support the Patriot Act. There are ... three or four sections that we're talking about, and they can be modified and it wouldn't compromise our security," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told "FOX News Sunday."
Republican "Senator John Sununu called me this week. We're talking about the two or three areas that we need to modify in the Patriot Act and get it reenacted and reauthorized in the next few weeks," Durbin said.
In a Jan. 10 letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales urging the administration's help in working on "key remaining points," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wrote. "I am confident that a good-faith discussion, honest debate and careful drafting can reduce, perhaps even eliminate, some of the points of disagreement."
Those points of disagreement include:
— National Security Letters: NSLs give federal law enforcement the authority to access without warrants personal records of an individual. Critics of the current law want to allow targets of NSLs to challenge the letters in court and challenge the gag orders preventing them from talking to others about the searches. Opponents of the existing rules also want to ensure that National Security Letters are issued only when a reasonable connection between the individual and terrorism can be made.
— Section 215 or so-called "library provision": Critics want to allow those targeted by federal searches of individual library records to challenge the searches in court and to override gag orders.
— Sneak-and-Peek Notification: Sneak-and-peek search warrants allow agents to search and seize evidence from a person's home without prior notification. Currently, law enforcement waits an average of 90 days before notifying targets, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Critics want that number down to one week.
The legislation that emerged from the House-Senate conference did include some new safeguards and expiration dates on other controversial Patriot Act provisions, but Democrats and the Senate Republicans who joined the opposition say these changes did not go far enough, and they prefer the original bill that came out of the Senate.
Republicans in favor of the conference bill, like House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, have said the compromise contains numerous new protections. He blamed Democrats for holding up the renewal of an important terror-fighting tool.
"A minority of obstructionist senators are waging a filibuster against the legislation, preventing these civil liberty safeguards from being implemented," Sensenbrenner said earlier this month. But while Sensenbrenner has spent the rest of this month touting the bill, his office acknowledged that missing the deadline was a possibility. An aide said the chairman would accept nothing but short-term extensions if that happened.
Meanwhile, in a recent Roll Call report, a spokesman for Majority Leader Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said that meeting the deadline by passing the conference bill intact was preferred, but if an extension were at hand, a long-term one would be more appropriate, to allow negotiators "to get the work done."
Any changes made to the conference report would have to go back to the House and Senate for approval, sources said.
Lisa Graves, senior counsel for policy strategy for the ACLU, said she would not be surprised if the deadline were extended briefly as she believes senators are serious about getting their concerns addressed.
"There is a lot of bluster out there," she said. "There are two realistic options — a short-term extension or a compromise. I think it will be both."